I’m supposed to be working on materials for my upcoming camp, but the itch to write on this topic finally got to me, and it was reading about Skyrim after writing about RPGaDAY of all things that did.
Character Growth. There’s two general kinds, but its best dealt with as three kinds. You have dramatic growth, and you have mechanic growth. The latter can be divided into vertical growth and horizontal growth. Each of these has a place in our games, but we normally only deal with one: vertical. In fact, some games actively discourage other kinds of growth, if they allow them at all.
Dramatic growth is when the fundamental character of your character changes. It’s your personality and your relationships. They don’t necessarily go up or even sideways; they just change. Most classic games skip over even developing this aspect of your character, much less provide you the tools to change it. Dramatic growth is immensely important because without it we are saying that our characters never change, yet they should. If their personalities never change, then they only ever get bigger numbers or more dots.
In D&D terms, this is your alignment, which, at least in the versions I used to play, was essentially locked. Rules were introduced for changing it, but if you did then you would suffer an XP penalty. That’s not an incentive to develop a character, to portray someone who becomes embittered by the failure of the highroad and starts employing extreme measures or to run a redemption arc after.
In Vampire terms, they are you Nature/Demeanor or Virtue/Vice. It’s a more nuanced approach, but there still wasn’t any impetus or real mechanic for those to change. Your character was static once made.
Other games handle this in a sideways manner. They may use something like alignment or nothing at all, but then they induce behavior modification through insanity or similar.
Weirdly, the problem with dramatic growth is that many players are highly resistant to it, or, at least, they are resistant to it being pushed onto them. When most of us make a character, we have a concept of them and we want to keep that concept. We want the agency and control over our characters, and we take umbrage when it is taken away (this is also why mind/thought control abilities so rarely work well on PCs).
Despite the resistance to change, most players accept insanity. The games that push this sort of mechanic set the expectation for its inclusion at the outset. Players, having the expectation that they might spiral down, accept it when they do. This setting of expectation does not happen with other dramatic growth. In fact, most games sell us on the opposite: it’s your character to play the way you want. That sets us up to be automatically protective of our characters’ personalities rather than allowing the story to change them.
Personally, dramatic growth is absolutely necessary to a game. Many of the most interesting characters from books, movies, and video games are those who change over time. Their ability to kick ass is nifty and we all say, “wasn’t that fight scene cool?” But it is the personal drama and what it does to the characters that moves us (how many other you remember Mordin Solus's stats as opposed to our ability to change him into a martyr or conspirator?). Yet, it is lacking from many games.
Vertical growth is the most common growth in gaming. You gain a level (vertical), get more hit points (vertical), get a larger to-hit bonus (vertical), get more spell points (vertical), and so forth. If the numbers are going up (or down) then its vertical. For me, it is also the most boring and potentially damaging type of growth to a game.
What does vertical growth really do that is at all interesting? Eat more damage? Hit harder? Swing more? You aren’t doing anything new! You are just doing the same stuff over and over again, only better. The only new thing introduced is the enemy. You graduate from goblins to orcs to hobgoblins to gnolls to bugbears to ogres, etc. Eventually you are going toe to toe with dragons. On one hand it’s cool to take on tougher opponents. On the other hand we really start stretching credulity when you are soloing giants in a back and forth slugfest and shugging off lightning bolts (cue the debates on hit points). The silliness that can come about isn’t necessarily the part that damages your game either, it’s also the exclusion that occurs.
Games that rely upon vertical growth also rely on the characters all being roughly the same power level. How many of you played MMOs and were excluded or excluded others from events because of character level (some exceptions made for the OP build that needs a nerf), or just stopped using characters in one of the Final Fantasy games because their level got too low and it would be a PITA to level them. The same thing happens in table top.
Going back to D&D, at first level, everyone can contribute to the melee as they are all roughly the same skill. Give a few levels and things start separating out. Early editions were not too bad about this. The fighter only gained a to-hit bonus every other level, which meant the monsters didn’t scale too quickly either; though, it also meant the only thing you got was more hit points, which didn't feel like a great accomplishment. This slow slope also allowed characters from a diverse range of levels to be in the party, especially with the right ability bonuses. This gave a sense that characters could go on side adventures and come back and everyone could still hang together or that a lower level toon could be inserted part way through. Then came 3rd ed and Pathfinder with a steep vertical growth curve (1 for 1, not counting the grab bag of bonuses). It’s so steep that everyone gets left in the dust pretty quickly.
Another issue with vertical growth is that everyone is scrambling to get just one more +1. As up is your only, or at least best, path to power, that’s all you go for. Things like +1 weapons just feed this quest for the bonus.
Is vertical growth per se bad? No, but it is most of what we get in many game systems. It’s easy and ties into class systems perfectly. It’s not lazy, it’s just really easy to implement. But if it’s all you get, then it’s boring and/or nonsensical. Heck, at some point, you may as well be back playing Wizardry on the Apple IIe. Now, some vertical growth is necessary and makes complete sense. How to fix it is where the last type of growth comes into play.
For anyone who has taken a look at Krendel, it should come as no surprise that I love horizontal growth. This is where you learn new stuff. If vertical growth is a collection of improvements, horizontal growth is a collection of enablers.
Horizontal growth is why spell casters are generally so much fun to play. You can learn any number of new spells that enable to you fly, paralyze people, translate languages, teleport, make a good meal, etc. Even when these powers induce temporary vertical growth, they can still be a lot of fun because they force you to make choices as to what action you are going to take.
That’s really the fun of horizontal growth: choices or, at least, options. Vertical growth gives me one tool. Like the saying says, if all I’ve got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. With horizontal growth, suddenly I've got a wrench, a set of pliers, a saw, a drill, a crowbar, a ball of twine, and a cupcake with pink frosting. Which one will work best in this situation? The more tools I have, the greater variety of solutions I look for, which drives creative play.
Now, that’s also the weakness of horizontal growth. It isn’t commonly used because it is complicated. It demands that players make choices, both when they choose their abilities and when they use them. That can be a big turnoff for some people. The more options you provide, the more people you turnoff.
With respect to mundane abilities, there are very few pure enablers, depending on how your skills work. You might have a skill for forgery with level of ability and all that, or you might have an ability that just toggles it on for you. You could also have an ability that allows you to attack a second time. Technically that is enabling a second attack, but it is also feeding the vertical DPS (damage per second) rating of your character. When you get to magic you get more pure enablers, but you also get a lot of improvements too (e.g. basic zap is an enabler, but better zap is just an improvement of basic zap).
Things can be made worse when horizontal growth is strongly conflated with vertical growth. D&D 3rd ed is a perfect example of this. You get feats, which look like horizontal growth, until you see that most of the feats are giving +1 or +2 bonuses to skills or damage or letting you use one ability in place of another, encouraging you to min/max those. In a system built almost solely on the value of vertical growth, you find that if you misspend one of your few feats by taking an enabler that you are at a disadvantage. Seriously, why wasn’t weapon specialization simply built in as a class feature for fighters? Did anyone not take it?
How do you deal with that? Keep the number of vertical growth options small and spread out over a variety of subjects. If you have to choose 5 powers from 10 options, of which one is shoot better, one is swing better, one is thieve better, and the rest are enablers, then I will probably take one or two of those vertical options and then enablers for the rest.
Next, make the vertical options situational, especially for combat bonuses (or whatever sort of conflict is the center of your game, generally that's combat). Where this may make them less attractive, it mainly causes players to think of how to maneuver so that they get the bonus. Call it a sly enabler, as the player is the one jockeying events and terrain so as to enable their bonus. That drives creative play.
You also need to make those vertical options exclusive. If you are in one stance for offensive bonuses, then you can’t also be in to another to get defensive bonuses. Again you are forcing choices. Plus, if the stackability of bonuses is limited, then I’ll just go get some other ability, like an enabler!
Last, make options easy to get. If I only have 5 choices to make, then I will hoard those options like every elixir that ever dropped in a Final Fantasy game. If I can make a choice at almost any time, then I will totally do that. I will certainly weigh the value of my options, but I will be incentivized to pick up a couple of cheap enablers if I can grab one each game session, rather than saving for five game sessions just to get another +1.
Some games stick to just vertical growth (usually revolving around combat). Heck, most do. It’s easy, and many of the proponents for those games say that it allows them to freeform the rest of it. They can pass rulings over what a character can do. By extension, this encourages creativity in games.
In my experience, that approach breeds inconsistency in terms of what characters can and cannot do, and it breeds consistency in what they actually do. As mentioned above, if all you’ve got is a hammer, that’s generally all you think to use. This removes creative thinking. The mere fact that enablers exist in a game means that you cannot do that action without the enabler. This inherently creates obstacles in the game, forcing players to be more creative in their problem solving while at the same time actively lighting pathways to solutions by showing GM and player alike that an enabler could be used to bypass an obstacle.
What does all of that mean? Well, ultimately, the types of growth your game allows will push gameplay. If you encourage fluid drama dynamics, then people will be more likely to invest in the persona of their characters and explore growth arcs. They will be more open to letting change happen to their characters, rather than treating it like a digital avatar. If your mechanics really just feed a single paradigm of vertical growth, then that is, realistically, all players will strive for, which may be OK. If you implement horizontal growth, then you can create an incredibly rich game that can also introduce a level of complication that many are not used to.